Interview: Keith Morris of OFF! on a life of punk, endless touring, and rewriting the rulebook
At 59 years old, Keith Morris is a living example of the musical genre’s ability to exceed expectations: most in the late-’70s and early-’80s probably would have guessed that the one-time Black Flag and Circle Jerks vocalist would be spending the 2010s either in an insane asylum or a wooden box in the ground. Wrong! Since 2009, he’s been fronting OFF!, a terrific band that is either a) one of the last bastions of U.S. hardcore still bringing real-deal punk to the masses, or b) a group of creative anachronists who refuse to see the year written on the calendar.
Last month, they released their third album, Wasted Years; its 16 tracks zip by as quickly as their prior two “long”-players, but in some ways, the fact that it’s their third album kind of means that maybe this actually a real band and not just some elaborate stunt-prank concept-piece about the ephemeral nature of playing one-minute-screaming hardcore tunes in this day and age. In advance of OFF!’s show Sunday at the Middle East in Cambridge, I caught up with Mr. Morris via cellular telephony; nearing six decades of living, he sat on a bench across from Baltimore’s Ottobar, about to play another packed gig on the endless tour that is his life.
Daniel Brockman: So now you guys have put out album number three, does OFF! feel more real now, doing grueling tours and cranking records out for five years now? Is it a full-time job now?
Keith Morris: A full-time job? Well, it feels like a full-time job, but it’s really just a part-time job because there’s three dads in the band, and their wives and kids are their first priority. And we’ve also got a guy in the band who plays in, like, six other bands! So our scheduling is just, uh, a massive clusterfuck. But it’s worth it, we’re enjoying ourselves and we know that when it’s our time, literally. No thinking about it, when it’s time to go, you jump in and do it. Parachute or no parachute, you jump!
Your new record is called Wasted Years — is that tile ironic, or does it at least partly seem true to you, having spent decades in the punk trenches?
Well, another angle is “Why am I such an idiot to have allowed all this to go on as long as it has.” Maybe we don’t know any better, maybe this is what we do. I mean, I’m in a band with some guys who are pretty bad-ass! You know, these guys, they don’t goof around. So looking at the album cover itself, the artwork by one of our favorite characters, Raymond Pettibon, I grew up with — the guy on the cover, I was surrounded by countless guys like the guy on the album cover. You know, one of those guys who has pizza delivered to history class. I was in the community of those types of characters. So that’s part of the scenario.
Another angle is that I had been a member where one of the guys dictated what our schedule was going to be, and there is some anger there, some finger-pointing. But I won’t be digging deep into any of that. Let the chips fall as they may!
It’s interesting that you bring up the Spicoli thing, because part of what you’ve done in your bands has been Spicoli kind of stuff, and part of what you’ve done has been a reaction to that. What do you think, do you think part of punk is all about “Let’s have fun” and yet part is “Let’s not have fun”?
Well, here’s the thing when it comes to the lyrics: there’s a scale, and that scale kind of goes up and down. There’s a time to be serious and a time to be light-hearted. I mean, right now, I’m sitting on a bus bench, and the lovely lady next to me is counting her change, so when the bus pulls up she’s going to get on. But I’m sitting right across the street from the Ottobar, Steven’s standing in the street taking photos of me sitting on the bus bench, and in the back of my mind I’m hoping that he doesn’t get hit by the vehicles whizzing by.
Right; but about the lyrics?
There’s a time to be serious and a time to be light-hearted and we try to keep the mix even.
But don’t you feel that even you, when you’re being light-hearted, that it’s more of a sarcastic statement, that you’re being serious beneath that facade?
The situation is that one of the things I’ve learned is that you get a little bit thick-skinned, and that helps you deflect all of the barbs and the jabs and the spears. Like Facebook for example, I post something and every critic, every know-it-all, every fucking self-made genius, has to chime in like “Well, you can’t do that,” or “That’s not punk rock,” or “You can’t play with them.” I’m 59 years old! You know what I can do? I can stand here on the sidewalk and flip my finger up towards the sky. And it’s a beautiful blue sky, nice little breeze. But you know, I’m at the point where I can’t answer to all of these people. I don’t really have to, I’ve been doing this so long, for over half of my life, I should be able to come and go as I please. And you know, I’ll write back to some of these people, I’ll chime in.
Like for a couple of years, I was one of the administrators on the Black Flag page. And you know how stupid and silly and ridiculous that whole situation was; and one of my jobs was to jump in there and stick up for Henry Rollins. I felt compelled to stand up for him. People would go “Oh, he’s such a sellout,” or “How dare he sell trucks on television,” or what have you. But the fact of the matter is that Henry got in the van. He went out and he did it! He lived on $5 a day, he slept on people’s floors and in people’s backyards, so he can do whatever the fuck he chooses, good for him.
But you were doing all of this decades before the internet; was the whole thing more snipey in those pre-internet days, or were you guys insulated from all that?
We were actually pretty insulated in that we didn’t know how to book a tour, or go about getting shows on our own. We talked to the guy who owns the club, and he didn’t know who we were, he didn’t get us. He was probably looking to attract people who would also be going to see, you know, Peter Frampton at Anaheim Stadium, or Lynyrd Skynyrd, or whoever. We weren’t aligned with any of that, and maybe through our stupidity or naivete, we just kind of ended up rubbing elbows with everybody, because we didn’t know any better. We’ve been accused of being part of a group a bands that started a genre of music, but we didn’t know what we were doing. We were clueless! The blind leading the blind!
A lot of your experiences must have involved interfacing with people that didn’t understand what you doing, to confront people that didn’t want to hear what you were playing.
We bummed out a lot of people. Where we were from, if you played out on a Friday or Saturday night and you didn’t play any Fleetwood Mac — I don’t mean the Peter Green Fleetwood Mac — but if you didn’t have any Top 40 in your set, people were going to throw things at you. Rotten fruit, tomatoes, that sort of thing. We really stuck a pin in the ass of the community that was into peace and love and flowers and that kind of stuff. Having been through but we’ve been through, I can appreciate all of that, there were a lot of good hippies around back then. But back then, we were just angry, we were depressed, we were bummed out, we were pissed off, and we didn’t want to be a part of that.
You must have an interesting perspective having done that and experienced that for so many years, and now doing OFF!, which seems to be received much better than these older, “legendary” bands from decades past.
People didn’t understand it back then because it was fresh and it was new and it was exciting. I want to say that it was new but it was based on Iggy and the Stooges and the Ramones and the MC5, maybe even Ted Nugent, maybe even Aerosmith, maybe even Black Sabbath. People may be a bit more open minded now, but our crowd is still pretty limited. You know? We’re still struggling to get to the next level, where we could maybe play a room that holds a thousand people. Maybe we’re right back at square one!
I mean, it’s okay, we’re out, we’re doing it, we can pay our bills, we’re able to take care of that part at this level. We’re at a place where we’re trying to figure out who we can play with, who would we open for. We’ve opened for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, we’ve opened for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, we’ve opened for TV On The Radio, we’ve played all these festivals, we’ve played with Guided By Voices, with Deerhunter, with Odd Future. So what’s next, open for Bad Religion, for Pennywise? I mean, we have this new record, and we’re out playing clubs right now, and it’s going really well, but are we going to be able step up and climb to higher rungs on the ladder? I mean, if we’re doing well at this level that we’re at right now, what’s next, what else is out there? A giant question mark.
Being in a band, like so many human endeavors, really is this existential dilemma; when you achieve something you worked for, you can never appreciate it because the next thing is in the distance. It’s Sisyphean.
When you’re young, and you’re a new band, and you’re just trying to discover things and figure things out, I don’t think you’re supposed to worry, you’re not supposed to think about stuff like that. You’re supposed to just go out and play. And that’s part of our mantra, but at the same time we’ve been doing this for a few years and there’s supposed to be some sort of reward. There’s got to be some kind of a payoff, the guys have got to feed their kids and keep their wives from nagging on them and bitching at them and, you know, doing all the moaning and whining and complaining. Keep a roof over their kids heads, all that good stuff. All those responsibilities. When you’re young, you know, you can be punk rock, you can throw the brick through the window of the Bank of America and not suffer any repercussions, you know? You shrug your shoulders and get on with it. But when you hit a certain age, there’s a big wall that you run into and that wall is called Responsibility. It’s a big dilemma!
Everything Black Flag did is trapped in amber, stuck in a time when no one had any responsibilities. People can always look at one of those groups and go “Oh, look at those young men and women without caring”, but the truth of it is that there’s so much more to it.
Well, um, I think that there’s a big lie there in that if you don’t care about what you’re doing, then why are you doing it? And at the same time, when you get sickened about it, you also have some fun attached to it. If you’re not having fun and you’re not making money, then why are you doing it? We’re able to survive, and I can’t say “Well, we’re all out buying new cars and mansions in the hills”, because we’re not doing that. It’s a struggle, you know, you’ve got to struggle for your art, you’ve got to fight for your art.